Sunday, April 2, 2017 – Fifth Sunday in Lent
We began our Lenten journey when Jesus was willing to walk into the waters of the Jordan, when he chose to be baptized by John. Choosing to be one of those in need of repentance, rather than to be God’s son. John argues with him about it, but Jesus insists – that he is all in. Fully one of us. And as if unable to contain God’s self at that act, God blurts out in that moment – “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased!” And Jesus goes immediately thereafter to the desert to wrestle out this double identity. Being the declared Son of God and having chosen to be fully the Son of Man – leaves him vulnerable to the temptations of the Devil, but over and over Jesus chooses to stand with us, as he did in the Jordan. To live as one of us. And having proven that he will not assume power, that he will be a servant of God, rather than an earthly king, Jesus sets out from the desert to begin his ministry in earnest.
I can picture it, he has work to do and a plan. ‘So much to do, so little time…’ Yet, as we hear in the ensuing weeks of Lent, he then encounters all of these people who are not really in the frame when it comes to what he was thinking in terms of his ministry (isn’t life what happens when we’re making other plans?!).
Of course a lot happens in the Gospel text between the lessons we’ve heard on Sundays. Jesus preaches and teaches, heals and cares for those whom we’d expect him to, and he expected to: the children of Israel, particularly these disciples he has gathered, (men and women, by the way); the crowds of people who are children of the promises of the covenant. (Keep in mind, when we hear John’s Gospel talking overtly and negatively about “the Jews,” we’re hearing a cultural and political commentary specific to that moment in time – similar to our using words like “the conservatives” and “the liberals” in our own context.) Jesus meant to come to the Jews, that was the plan.
But there are a lot who exceed the expectations as well. People who are somehow beyond the group, yet who become part of the promises of God. Nicodemus who represents much of the establishment that is threatened by Jesus; and the Samaritan woman at the well; and the man born blind; whose interactions expand our understanding. Who shatter the narrow framework we have so carefully constructed – about who is in and out, and who God might include in God’s Kingdom. As we relentlessly attempt to squeeze God in a human sized container.
As my favorite theologian, Marilyn McCord Addams, has famously said (and I have shared with you often), “God is very, very big and we are very, very small.” And yet we do our level best to bridge that tremendous size gap by dragging God down to our size, rather than expanding ourselves a tad – increasing our own imagination, or extending a bit more compassion, or even simply being willing to leave room for what more might be possible for God, being GOD.
It is in part because God is very, very big, that God’s own son exceeds our expectations, even in human form, and this confrontation from the desert comes full circle; bringing us to this moment among friends in Bethany. No matter how staid and controlled John’s Gospel account tries to make this story, even John has to admit that Jesus can no longer maintain the carefully composed, holy balancing act between Son of God and Son of Man.
It couldn’t have been easy for Jesus all this time. Time and again throwing himself “all in” with us and our human frailty and brokenness; while knowing that he is God’s own. Jesus denies himself any of that “power over,” any of the comforts that he could have through his power. And he uses the power he has, the power of God working through him, to heal and to make things better, to feed, to show people God’s glory – to point people to God. As it should be. This is Jesus walking that balance – using the Son of God within the Son of Man to the glory of God and the benefit of humankind. Got it.
Today he crashes head first into something that won’t allow even him to maintain a holy balance. Love. The soul wrenching heart ache of love and loss. The very thing that births this miraculous combination of incarnation: “For God so loved the world… that he gave his only begotten Son…” is the very thing that derails Jesus in this moment.
Love knocks him to the ground. Jesus, the beloved of God, for the beloved of God, us. Jesus faces this moment and is utterly undone. One whom he loves has died. His friend, the beloved of his friends… Lazarus is dead. Jesus is heartbroken – for himself, and for all those he loves. It’s more than he can bear; and it almost crushes him – Jesus weeps openly there in their midst.
Jesus weeps, and then he acts. And that wrestling match in the desert is finally settled. Son of God and Son of Man are one and the same, but not in the way Satan would have had it, or ever have understood. He is using this power, but not for himself exactly. Not in the way power corrupts, but in the complicated way that love enfolds and binds, weaves and interconnects; creating and strengthening relationship, bringing forth something new, where before there was nothing.
The love of God: for the world, for the Son. The love of the Son: for God, and for those entrusted to him; those who trust and love him in return, and whose faith and love in God is unfailing. This love can’t be contained, will no longer be restrained, or restricted to the carefully balanced holy walk, or even bound by funeral wrappings, as Jesus cries – “Lazarus, come out!” Calling life out of death, as only God’s boundless love can.
Can you imagine it? Brushing aside all the carefully controlled rhetoric of John’s Gospel, can you imagine this moment? As Lazarus chooses to come out, and live, Jesus instructs them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Let him go to his family, to his sisters, to his friends. To be gathered into the arms of those who love him, to those who have grieved his loss – Jesus himself included. Whose faces are still soaked with tears.
This seems like too important a moment to just slide right by – that we should honor their tears. Be willing to weep with Jesus, and for him and for those he loves.
In his book Seasons for the Spirit, Martin Smith suggests this story is a challenge to us to “Weep with those who weep.”1 Yet, we aren’t very good at that, are we? We’re reluctant to enter into another’s grief, to put it mildly. Sometimes that’s because we know we could do something to alleviate their suffering, but we aren’t willing to pay that cost. “We pass by on the other side.” We are just as likely to ignore another’s grief for the opposite reason – when we feel completely helpless to do anything about it at all. And their grief threatens our sense of control. Most of the time, we find tears unnerving and annoying – so we try to make people stop crying, sending out signals telling them to pull themselves together.
Smith thinks our intolerance has deep roots in our refusal to face the grief in our own hearts. He writes:
The grief of others threatens to penetrate our defenses and stir up our own neglected and denied sadness. Among the selves of the self there are mourners who grieve over the losses we have sustained. Many of us have been taught to despise these bearers of grief who continue to mourn the loss of loved ones, failures and unrealized dreams, rejections and disappointment. We rail at them as agents of self-pity.2
Later in the chapter, Smith continues:
We need to come to the truth about tears themselves. Tears are a mystery, and to trust them involves a measure of surrender … Tears are tears. The great tradition of spirituality speaks of a gift of tears that comes from God, a manifestation of the grief that makes for joy – … If we adamantly refuse to weep we are fighting our humanity; we are certainly grieving the Holy Spirit.3
Friends, as adults in faith, there comes a point in our lives when our relationship with God and our growth in freedom and compassion absolutely depends on allowing ourselves to mourn our own losses and allowing God into our grief.4
No longer stoic New Englanders (if we ever truly were), but those now unafraid to weep, for we have been unbound by love. Willing to weep with those who weep, beginning with ourselves. No longer fighting to control our humanity, but joining with Jesus as he embraces his own, and ours fully. May we step all in, plunging into the depths of this intricate and beautiful, beloved and blessed, recklessly heartbreaking, abundant life. Amen.
1 Martin L. Smith, A Season for the Spirit, (Church Publishing: New York, 2004), 120-124. 2 Martin L. Smith, A Season for the Spirit, (Church Publishing: New York, 2004), 121.
3 Martin L. Smith, A Season for the Spirit, (Church Publishing: New York, 2004), 122.
4 Martin L. Smith, A Season for the Spirit, (Church Publishing: New York, 2004), 121-122.
Rephrased into the first person plural, and adapted. Original sentence reads: There comes a point in the lives of countless adults when their relationship with God and their growth in freedom and compassion depends on allowing themselves to mourn their own losses and allowing God to touch them in grief.